Saturday, September 7, 2013

MCPS can't keep coasting on its good reputation

A Montgomery County school board member once told me, “There are no bad schools in Montgomery County.” This is sort of true, but so stellar a reputation often distracts people from the real problems Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) faces, such as a persistent achievement gap, de facto segregation by class and race and suggestions of middle-class flight. To tackle these difficult problems, families, community leaders and school administrators need to face a hard truth: MCPS just isn’t so great anymore.

Whitman High School
Whitman High School in Bethesda is Montgomery County's top-ranked public school, and one with virtually no black or low-income students. Photo by the author.
In the past 20 years, MCPS has gone from being a predominantly white, middle-class system to one that’s majority-minority and much more disadvantaged. Today, there are more Montgomery students who receive free or reduced-price lunches than there are students in the D.C. Public Schools.

But these changes have not been distributed equally through the county. Minority and low-income students are increasingly concentrated in Montgomery’s east and north. Meanwhile, its vaunted “W high schools” — Wootton, Whitman, Walter Johnson and Winston Churchill — have experienced little change or, in some cases, have become whiter and richer.

As a result, MCPS is increasingly segregated by class, race and academic performance. There remains a substantial achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students. Many of the county’s high school students failed their final math exams last year, but few of those failures occurred at the “W schools.” Instead, they were concentrated at schools such as Gaithersburg, Springbrook or Wheaton, which face problems akin to those in urban schools and lag far behind their wealthier counterparts.

Continue reading my first op-ed in the Washington Post! I'm glad to be contributing to their All Opinions Are Local section, and you can find this column in the paper's print edition on Sunday.


Robin Ficker said...

Dan, are you calling for cross county busing?

dan reed! said...

@Robin Ficker

No, I never said that. But I do think there are opportunities for MCPS to reconsider its boundaries in a way that could make its schools more integrated and equitable.

markianmusings said...

Shifting school boundaries will not help. Any councilmember who tried would get flooded with protest calls, e-mails and letters. If the council managed to change the boundaries anyway, families that could would move out of boundaries that included lower ranking schools. New families would avoid lower ranking school areas just like they do now.

skepticaltechnophile said...

Also, shifting boundaries to make schools whiter or browner has disturbing racial implications. If we can't improve a school without changing its demographics, doesn't that really mean we've given up on the school? Do we really want to imply that Wheaton High School, for example, needs more white students in order to improve its test scores?

dan reed! said...


Imagine you're a teacher at a high-poverty school. Most if not all of your students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of them don't have two parents. Some do, but they're too busy to get involved. And others have parents, but they couldn't care less. Your kids come to school hungry, tired, and unable to pay attention. They don't have resources to do the work at home. And every summer, they lose information they learned the year before and come home behind. These kids need a lot of help, and while they're certainly capable of succeeding, the odds are stacked against them, and you certainly don't have enough time to ensure every single kid is going to get the attention they need.

Now, imagine you're a teacher at a school where maybe half or a quarter (or in the case of Whitman High, virtually none) of your students are low-income. They have the same problems, but the balance of your kids come from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds. They're fed and well-slept and come to class ready to learn. Maybe their parents volunteer in the class sometimes or raise money for school supplies, taking the pressure off of you to worry about those things. That means you can focus on the kids who need more help.

This has nothing to do with race or income or background. It's about kids who need extra help and whether teachers and schools are able to give them the help they need. And it's a lot easier for them to do that when they aren't all segregated in a few schools.

Corinne said...

Thanks for your thoughtful oped. My comment: I was disappointed to see your call for family involvement focus on Superintendent Starr, instead of (as well) on the need for families to get more involved in their children's education. Like most others writing on the state of MCPS schools, you appear to treat the lack of parental/family involvement as a fait accompli. After all (as you note) the research on the link between better performance and parental involvement couldn't be clearer. The burden on increasing that performance simply can not rest on the backs of administrators and teachers alone. I'm a single mom, who works 60 hours a week and have no family support in the area and I still mange to go to 'back to school night,' do homework and study for tests with my child every night. Since moving here two years ago I've been perplexed by the lack of attention on this angle and wonder if more couldn't be done to widen the focus on responsibility from the schools/administrators to us as parents.

dan reed! said...


I'm sorry I didn't make myself clearer. I totally agree that parents need to be more involved in their kids' education, as studies show that all students (not just their kids) do better at schools with more engaged parents.

But there's also a risk of parents assuming that the school system is working as it should as well. The main focus of my column is that they can't take it for granted that MCPS is acting in their best interest, and they need to make their concerns known to the administration as well.

MontCoRes said...

You raise some interesting points though I don't agree with some of them. But your main point is right on. Parents should not assume the school system is working in their best interests. Like when the county spends some of its limited resources on new buildings at schools that are under 100% enrollment but does nothing or delays relief at schols that are way overcrowded (and there are many). Parents at the latter should be outraged.

Gary said...

Dan - did you see the comments here?

dan reed! said...


I'm aware of them, but honestly I have no response to anonymous blog comments that totally misrepresent who I am and what I believe. I respect the Parents' Coalition and think they've done some good work on the behalf of parents and students in MCPS. It's a shame that these kind of remarks are considered acceptable or even constructive, for that matter.